Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Daniel Crocker reads “How to Watch Your Brother Die” by Michael Lassel.
Daniel, you recorded reading this poem a few years ago back in 2013 with the caption, “One of the best poems ever written.” I reckon it’s not lost its impact. What was it like to discover this poem? Do you remember when you first came across “How to Watch Your Brother Die?”
Daniel: I can’t remember exactly where I read it. I think I was taking an independent study in LGBT literature when I was introduced to it. Either way, I remember it hit me hard the first time I read it. Although I think I’m a pretty emotional person, I’m not always a very emotive person. I’m not ashamed at all to say I cried the first time I read this and several times reading it since.
I remember those times in the ’80s and even the ’90s. There was so much fear and misinformation. There was Reagan. Of course, homophobia was wide spread at the time. It’s hard to believe now that a disease killing so many people would be politicized and framed as some sort of moral failure, but that’s just how it was then. This poem took all of that political discourse and made it personal in a beautiful, powerful and painful way. It’s hard to ignore a poem that has that much power in it.
Chris: Lassell’s poem certainly isn’t holding any punches. It’s a powerful piece dealing with a wide range of emotions. What do you think is key to the poem’s ability to handle so much fear, hate, loss and confusion and not become overwrought?
Daniel: I think for a poem like that, the key is to just tell it like it is. That is, your audience is going to know if you’re just trying to manipulate them emotionally. If you got something, and you just tell it plain, then the impact is like a comet. It just hits you. It’s a hard writing habit to learn. It took me years. I can’t speculate how Lassell did it, but I will anyway. Probably, he just had this important thing to say and he just said it without over thinking it or trying to make it “poetry.” Instead, he wrote something right to the point and powerful.
Chris: How does “How to Watch Your Brother Die” compare to Lassell’s other poetry? Is all of his work charged with identity politics?
Daniel: It’s not. He writes in a lot of different genres and in a lot of different ways. To me, somehow, that makes this poem even more special. It’s in my top five poems of all time, and that’s saying something. I’ve read a lot of poems.
Chris: Do you think more poets and writers would benefit from following that advice—telling it plain? Or does it work best in a specific time, place, and medium?
Daniel: For the most part, I like the ones that tell it plain. That said, many of my favorite poems are lyrical and many of my favorite poets write lyrical poems–and those can be just as powerful and moving. In general, the more brutal the subject matter, the more power “plain” language can have. I put plain in quotes there because while it’s certainly easy to follow, there are also some very beautiful lines in “How to Watch Your Brother Die.” I just don’t want to confuse accessible language with boring language as those are two different things.
Poetry is so complex and there’s such a variety, so many different types right now, that it’s easy to get excited about (even though every year or so we all hear that poetry is dead–it’s not). I don’t want to be one of those writers who advocate a certain style as being better than others because it really just depends on what the poet can do with whatever style they write in.
Chris: You discussed the emotional weight of “How to Watch Your Brother Die” the effectiveness of telling it like it is. What other mechanisms are at work in Lassell’s poem that qualifies it as “essential?”
Daniel: It’s a part of history. It was written early on, at the start of the AIDS epidemic. It’s kind of hard to imagine what that time was like if you aren’t old enough to remember it. There was so much confusion and fear. Parents were keeping their kids home from school because they didn’t know if you could catch it from a water fountain or what. There was so much misinformation. The sex talk I got as a kid, was basically my Dad handing me some pamphlets on AIDS and telling me to read them. There are several good documentaries on this, and I would suggest How to Survive a Plague as a good place to start.
Back to the poem itself–it does so many thing so brilliantly. First, writing in second person forces the reader into empathy. Writing it from the point of view of the straight brother also made it easier to relate to for most people. Again, there was so much fear and homophobia at this time. Rather than angrily rail against it (though there is certainly anger in the poem), Lassell invited people into a world they may have known very little about. He humanized the epidemic for a lot of people who wouldn’t or couldn’t (for political, religious, just plain homophobic reasons) humanize it for themselves. So not only is it a great poem as far as poems go, but it’s also an important poem–which, as far as I’m concerned, makes it immortal.
Chris: Thank you for sharing and reading such a powerful poem. I keep thinking about the scar and all that it represents–rage, both physical and emotional pain, and, ultimately, it becomes a symbol of forgiveness and love for Lassell’s brother. What’s your favorite line or image? Maybe picking one is tough—go for two.
Daniel: Mine has to be the scar as well and for all of the reasons you said. I also love this, “Think that/ you haven’t been kissed by a man since/ your father died. Think,/ “This is no moment not to be strong.” From a technical perspective, I love those bold line breaks. More than that, I like what it says about traditional masculinity. Those attitudes are changing though, and that’s a good thing.
Daniel Crocker is the author of three collections of poetry, a novel, and a short story collection. His recent chapbook, The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood is available to download for free at the Sundress Publications site.
Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and is currently trying to survive his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared in Connotation Press, Still: The Journal, Rappahannock Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.